Namahage - Meaning and Traditions of Japan's Ogre Folk Festival

Namahage is a traditional folk event unique to Japan's Oga Peninsula in Akita Prefecture. Celebrated on New Year's Eve, this mystical ritual features groups of locals donning scary ogre masks and costumes to terrify naughty children as well as warn people against laziness and bring good health and a good harvest. Read on to find out how you can immerse yourself in some of Japan's most unique celebrations by visiting the Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum or by attending the famous Namahage Sedo Matsuri, where you can witness powerful namahage dances and ancient rituals!

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There are many community based events and customs all across Japan. There are also many strange and unbelievable customs. Some of them are already well known and have become tourist attractions, while some are still held very secretively and are known only among the community. The number of those types of customs are uncountable. Today, I would like to introduce one of these strange customs, called Namahage, which is a tradition in Akita prefecture.

Akita prefecture is known as a heavy snow area, located on the Japan sea side in Northern Tohoku. Namahage is a custom specifically from the Oga area in Akita prefecture. I believe many people may be familiar with the name 'Namahage', even if they haven't seen them.

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What's Namahage?

Namahage are believed to be a kind of monster. They remove bad luck or troubles and bring good luck by visiting each house once in a year.

On New Years Eve every year, villagers wearing a Namahage costume (complete with a big knife and an Oni mask) walk around yelling 'Are there any lazy kids? Are there any crying kids?'. They enter in to each house, looking for kids who are crying. Each family has to invite them into their homes, welcoming them with food and sake. The father will try to satisfy and persuade them that their child is and will be a good boy or girl.

This sounds so strange. Kids must be so frightened to be chased by a Namahage holding a big knife. I feel really lucky that I didn't need to experience this when I was a kid. But, at the same time, I really think it's amazing that this event is still held every year. Many people might imagine red or blue masks when they imagine Namahage, but actually, those masks are very different depending on each community. It is said there are about 60 kinds! This is one of the unique and interesting points of Namahage.

Namahage Sedo Festival

In this festival you have the opportunity to actually see Namahage. It is held during the second Friday, Saturday and Sunday of February every year. Dynamic Namahage dance in front of an open fire, lending a certain mysterious atmosphere to the whole event. The climax of the festival is the climbing down of 15 Namahage, each holding a torch.

Oga Shinzan Densho-kan

There is also a place where you can experience Namahage all the time. Oga Shinzan Densho-kan is a traditional old Japanese house. In this house, people can experience Namahage, a custom rarely shown to people outside of the community.

This Namahage custom has very strict rules. Here, you can learn about these rules and the meaning of each action. You can truly get a deeper understanding of this unique custom as well as experience it first hand. This peculiar custom is protected and performed by the people in Akita every year so that it can be passed down for future generations to enjoy.

Top picture: PIXTA

Tohoku Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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